Subaru BRZ tS: First Drive

The track-ready mods for Subaru's ultimate BRZ end up making it better on the street.

Matt Farah

In one of my all-time favorite films, the 1990 Dudley Moore (mostly-forgotten) classic “Crazy People,” Moore plays an ad copywriter who has a nervous break down after becoming fed up with lying to folks and lying to himself. He writes a bunch of “honest advertisements,” which lead his employers to commit him to a mental institution, during which time, a mistake in the office leads to the “honest ads” being published, and becoming a huge success. Moore, still inside the asylum, is re-hired along with his “crazy people” friends to write honest advertisements for everything from New York Tourism (“Come to New York, There were Fewer Murders Last Year!”) to the all-new Jaguar XJS convertible: “For men who want hand jobs from women they hardly know.”

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Hilarity ensues.

After 100 miles on the road and 20 minutes on the track in the new, limited-to-500 Subaru BRZ tS, which stands for “Tuned by STI,” here’s what my honest advertisement might sound like:

ARE YOU the most diehard Subaru BRZ fan around? DO YOU want to be the kind of guy who brushes off snickers at your 205-hp car’s big GT wing with a puff-o-the-pen and an offhanded, “It’s factory, bro.” That always gets ‘em. WILL YOU be ready to immediately void your factory warranty by spending an additional $6,000 on a forced-induction system in order to bring the straight line performance of your car in line with the V6 Mustang you rented that time in Hawaii? Then GET ON BOARD with Subaru’s new $34,000, limited-edition, BRZ tS. ITS STILL GOT that same, weak engine you complained about for the last five years, BUT NOW they finally fixed the problem, the handling! That was a problem, right?

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Well, when you say it like that, it sounds kinda mean. But if this is me being honest, you should hear me out. From the very beginning, we liked the 86 twins (Sold through Subaru, and Scion, now Toyota), and its emphasis on lightweight construction, low center of gravity, and lower-speed driftability on the eco-focused and rock-hard Michelin Primacy tires. They were good-looking, reasonably practical, decently efficient and engaging sports cars, if not fast. The speed, Subaru and Toyota said, would come from the aftermarket, if the customer so desired.

We have since seen more than one variety of supercharger, Turbochargers, engine swaps, and virtually every possible aftermarket solution to make the 86 a thrilling sports car, as opposed to simply an agile, satisfactory one. Formula Drift superstar Ryan Tuerck even talked his sponsor Gumout into shoving first a Toyota 2JZ, and then a Ferrari 458 engine into his pair of 86s, which, yeah, we can pretty much call the game right there.

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But journalists, enthusiasts, and even the general buying public have been clamoring for more power out of the 86 and BRZ going on five years now, and this newest “Tuned by STI” version is, limited numbers or not, the final hand up from Subaru that, no, we’re not going to give you the power you wanted. In fact, Subaru only uses the word “power” in the entire six-page press release one time; referencing the steering.

Rather, Subaru’s talented engineers have set their sights on making the BRZ tS the most agile, best handling BRZ they could, and, I have to admit they have wildly succeeded at that.

It starts with the chassis upgrades the standard BRZ got in ’17, bigger roll bars, chassis reinforcements, higher stability system thresholds, and hill-hold assist, and the tS package adds, well, quite a lot.

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Most obviously, you get new 18-inch wheels with Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires wrapped around Brembo 4-piston front and 2-piston rear brakes (the brakes are also available in the Performance Pack for BRZ Limited). Then there’s the aero kit, which Subaru says improves stability, and the manually adjustable carbon fiber wing. Underneath, the SACHS dampers are re-tuned by STI, who also add flexible V-Braces underhood and draw stiffeners on the subframes.

Then, if you look closer, a whole bunch of details are painted red or black, the fog lights are gone, there’s some alcantara and additional badging, and voila! That’s the whole shebang for $33,450 (+ $860, destination/Delivery), $9,000 more than the base BRZ as of Feb 2018.

I began my drive at the base of California Highway 74, potentially the perfect hillclimb road, south of Palm Desert, CA and winding its way up and over red, rocky cliffs. The last time I drove this road was for the /TUNED Tuner Shootout, in a 600+ Horsepower Porsche GT2 with a sequential gearbox that made shotgun sounds on every upshift, and the road was closed. Just for context.

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Now, with less than one-third of the horsepower I had before, I cranked the go pedal up the hill and immediately went “Yuck,” audibly, to myself, when experiencing a full-throttle, three-gear pull with a mild uphill incline. It’s not just that the BRZ is slow, which it really really is, it’s that the engine is so strained, sounding rough and uninspiring, and with a very obvious torque dip right in the middle of the power band, I don’t even want to try to be its friend. This isn’t remotely helped by the BRZ’s “realtime dyno chart” in the right-side gauge, which shows, graphically, the torque dip for everyone to see, every time you accelerate through the gears. You cannot believe someone looked at the graph showing that dyno chart and decided to be so proud of it as to make it an animated gauge. It’s just, well, the engine is not good. It wasn’t good in 2012, and it isn’t good now. It makes a terrible noise while also making terrible power, and its curve looks like the “random” workout icon on my elliptical machine, full of peaks and valleys.

About to dismiss the car entirely, I then arrived at a corner, and realized that, hang on, Subaru’s chassis people know exactly what they are doing.

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I’m certain there isn’t street-legal new car under $60,000 that can match the cornering speeds of this thing. It’s a momentum car, of course, because what other choice does it have, but oh my lordy, the momentum you can carry. With only just over 2,800 lbs to rein in, and ridiculously sticky PS4S rubber, seemingly functional downforce, and an engine that, well, isn’t my engine, you just don’t ever have to slow down the whole way up the hill. Leave the thing banging the rev limiter in third gear if you have to, but brakes? Forget the brakes, just turn in. No problem.

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At 4.2 miles up the hill, I began the descent with similar levels of aggression, and found that, even with gravity assisting you, it would be quite the task to overheat the brakes on all but the longest banzai runs on all but the hottest days. A set of high-temp pads and fluid, and you could easily push “rarely” right over into “never.”

The Thermal Club’s private race circuit is, actually, the perfect spot to test a BRZ. It’s tight, and there are lots of Armco rails and concrete walls, so you want a car with good handling and brakes. Likewise, there are no real straightaways at Thermal, so you don’t end up with a case of the too-much-tracks. Anyone who’s ever done a multi-class race at Road America will understand. What Thermal does have is glass-perfect tarmac and tall, but smooth curbing which you can use to turn the car, if not fully jump it.

Matt Farah
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Out on track, the great dynamics I found on the street apply double, because you really are exploring those limits of grip, which, again, are extraordinarily high. The tS talks to you in a language you already know; zero learning curve. It’s light, easy, the brakes never fade, and the tires never seem to grease up.

At mid-to-high speed bends, including a fast S-transition right at pit exit, the grip, and, yes, even the aero, is more than welcome, keeping the rear end in line even when I slam the second curb at full throttle at 100 mph. Again, I think you’d have to spend twice as much to get the same amount of mid-corner speed. The engine seems stronger on the track than it does on the street, since you predominantly keep the revs above the dreaded torque dip, and thanks to natural aspiration, you really can beat the ever loving stink out of it without suffering heat soak, much less full-on overheating, like you might see in a turbo car. And oh, of course, it will be faster around a track than a standard BRZ, and you do not need a stopwatch to tell that.

Matt Farah
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Here’s the problem though: In a BRZ, faster isn’t better. If the goal is to go faster, if the goal is to have more grip and set the best lap times, I mean, it should be pretty obvious that a BRZ is not the tool for that job. For the price of the BRZ tS you could have a five-hundred horsepower C6 Z06 in good nick, and have enough left over for a season’s worth of Hoosiers. You can get used to the BRZ’s pace very quickly, and you’ll end up looking for forced induction solutions, the only way to really make it go faster, and at that point, why spend the money on a brand new one only to throw the warranty away?

A BRZ’s niche is to teach the fundamentals; to practice driving dynamics, car control, to learn what oversteer is, and how to make it work for you, all that good stuff. It’s superb at that, in base form. A big part of that ethos was the lack of aero and the lack of grip from those “Prius tires.” Being able to slide a BRZ in second gear at 20 mph all day long is glorious, safe, cheap fun. Adding sticky Michelin rubber to the equation pretty much ends that game. While you certainly could “hockey stop” a BRZ into a corner by entering with way too much speed, it is nigh impossible to power-oversteer the tS or to use any gear besides first to maintain wheelspin on the circuit. I tried, repeatedly, to get the thing to slide, and eventually I had to “jump drift” it by bouncing it hard off an inside curb. It worked, but it wasn’t pretty.

Matt Farah
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Want to know why there's a lack of slidey photos in this review? The drivers spun out immediately after I snapped the frame, because they could not hold the angle. Honestly it was frustrating, and on the circuit, less fun than the standard, base car I tested back in 2013.

Ironically, the track-prepped, STI-tuned version of the car was more fun on the street. For track work, I’d much rather have the low-grip, base version, especially if we’re talking about real money here. If you can’t go fast, you may as well be going sideways, and the BRZ tS isn’t good at going sideways.

But that’s just if I’m being honest.

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